First-in-class digital therapeutic using virtual reality technology to tackle social avoidance launches in the NHS.

Oxford VR (OVR) announces the launch of OVR social engagement™ a ground-breaking and progressive mental health intervention using virtual reality technology to help individuals overcome anxious social avoidance, prevalent in multiple mental health conditions including agoraphobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and schizophrenia.

Founded in 2017, Oxford VR’s work is at the frontiers of exciting innovation in mental healthcare using powerful virtual reality technology and evidence-based science to improve capacity and outcomes. The company creates automated immersive psychological therapy interventions that build on 20 years of clinical research by Daniel Freeman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Department of Psychiatry, Oxford University.

Anxious social avoidance is a major unmet need in mental healthcare. It is one of the most debilitating features of mental illness. Individuals experience extreme distress and fear in public situations – especially when alone – such as going outside, using public transport, or being in a supermarket. For some, it can progress to a point of social isolation and affect overall health in a way that is comparable to the impact of obesity and cigarette smoking.

Anxious social avoidance is also common in individuals with addiction issues. In severe and complex mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, anxious social avoidance leading to isolation is frequently seen. Studies show that women are more likely than men to experience anxious social withdrawal.

Developed by OVR clinicians, OVR social engagement™ is a user-centred program that translates evidence-based cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) through immersive virtual reality environments.

OVR social engagement™ is delivered over half-hour weekly sessions. During a session, the user puts on a VR headset and enters a virtual world where they are guided by a virtual coach and required to complete a series of graded tasks, in different situations such as a street scene, a bus, and a shop – reflecting the everyday triggers of anxious social avoidance. Great care has been made to ensure the environments are life-like, interactive, and engaging.

Throughout the program the user gradually faces problematic situations to overcome their extreme distress and fear, to feel safer, more confident and more in control. The program is automated and does not require a qualified clinician and can be delivered by a trained member of staff.

The VR environments give people the reassurance they can try out new things safely. By completing the tasks, users learn that they can cope in these situations and the evidence confirms that the behavioural changes made in the VR environments transfer to the real world.

Speaking about Oxford VR’s social engagement™ VR therapy, June Dent, Director, Clinical Partnerships at OVR said: “Our vision is to turn the tide on life-interrupting mental illnesses pushing the boundaries of clinical excellence and new technology to transform lives. The immersive nature of VR provides a powerful new way to engage users and helps them to regain confidence, feel safe and overcome trigger situations. This innovative program has been created with the voices and expertise of people affected by anxious social avoidance and applies proven evidence-based psychological techniques.”

Oxford VR’s social engagement™ program is now available to NHS patients via providers of NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies and other UK mental healthcare providers


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